Next month, California might almost catch up with Carpinteria.
The small beach town in Santa Barbara County, population 13,500, is rarely cited as a leader in anything. But when it comes to eliminating single-use plastic bags – the subject of two measures on the November ballot – Carpinteria is our pioneer.
Carpinteria boasts the state’s broadest ban on single-use bags. It doesn’t just bar getting plastic at the grocery store or other larger retailers, it prohibits paper bags as well.
The proposed statewide ban on bags – which voters are being asked to affirm in the Proposition 67 referendum – prohibits only single-use plastic bags and allows shoppers to get paper bags for 10 cents a pop.
The debate may seem like a narrow policy question on whether the benefits of keeping plastic bags out of the environment outweigh the inconvenience of having to bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store.
But the bag ban is actually part of a much broader story about how, even in the grandest of states, it’s still possible for a few individuals in a small place to make an outsized difference.
The roots of the bag ban in Carp (as locals weary of saying the five-syllable name call their town) lie in the 1990s recession. As vacant storefronts in the small downtown rose and graffiti became more common, several residents started the all-volunteer Carpinteria Beautiful civic organization. Then, as now, it had no dues and no rules. It started with graffiti removal, then took on all kinds of local projects – picking up litter, painting bus benches, maintaining the millstone fountain at Seaside Park and the Linden Beach ping-pong table.
Carpinteria Beautiful and other groups were also active in environmental causes, fighting to protect Carp’s distinctive seaside bluffs from development. In 2007, Santa Barbara City College students and faculty told the City Council about environmental problems caused by plastic bags ending up in Carp’s creeks and the ocean. While other coastal cities were pursuing bag bans, Carp’s city government was wary of the high legal costs of defending the city against inevitable lawsuits from bag manufacturers.
So Carpinteria Beautiful began a community campaign to encourage citizens to switch voluntarily to reusable grocery bags; it won some converts, but not as many as a ban would.
In 2011, the conversation changed. The local Albertsons grocery store was undergoing renovations that would make it environmentally friendly, and its manager, Ahmed Jahadhmy, a longtime resident, announced that Albertsons would go “bagless” and worked to persuade customers to switch to reusable bags. Fortuitously, the California Supreme Court a few months later upheld the bag ban in Manhattan Beach, giving Carpinteria the confidence to enact a ban in 2012.
The impact was clear. Volunteers who had found 40 to 50 plastic bags during creek cleanups before the ban found only one or two. Locals say the ban and other beautification work created momentum for an effort to stop new oil drilling.
As California debates whether to approve the single-use bag ban statewide, the picture can seem complicated. With so many cities having followed Carp’s lead – by one count there are 122 different local ordinances to ban single-use bags in 151 jurisdictions – Californians have varying experiences with such bans.
So why not keep the question as simple as a beach city’s beauty? What, after all, could be wrong with making California more like Carp?
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.